“Encore Marie Antoinette”
Last night, I read to its sad finale Stefan Zweig’s can’t-be-more-definitive biography of Marie Antoinette, the unluckiest Queen of France. She got a passing mention in “My Inner French Girl,” not a very respectful notice, but now she haunts me with the feeling I did not do justice to her story.
I said that she loved life’s pleasures, knew the art of pleasing, and went far toward putting the budget of France in the red. I neglected to add that she was excoriated in terms that expressed all the hatred that can befall a woman: as a she-wolf, a whore, the emblem of all the vices of her sex, a debauched female, a criminal mother, and on and on. At an earlier phase, anyone at court who won her favor was envied and the public went wild for her when she appeared in Paris.
She had been the toast of the old regime.
She became the she-devil of the new.
Her particular flaws were not uncommon ones, but they went unchecked under the regime of which she was the Queen. The consequences were such as to give her a starring role in the world-historical event that changed the political order of Europe: the French Revolution.
She was unlucky and did not know how to be lucky. The impotence of her bridegroom lasted seven years, by which time the young couple had attracted the voyeuristic attention and coarse humor of the whole nation. Though his condition was eventually corrected by surgery, the psychological effects were lasting. He could not play the man with her, nor with his realm when he had to. Erotically, they never became a couple, nor a good team when external threats swirled around them.
The famous “Affair of the Diamond Necklace” is too bizarre and improbable for me to comprehend, even after I read Zweig’s lucid explanation. She’d been the target of a pair of grifters who pretended that she’d ordered a staggeringly costly piece of jewelry. They implicated high-placed others in their scheme, by prevailing on them to advance the price of the necklace, supposedly on the Queen’s behalf. When the female swindler finally made her escape to England, she targeted Marie Antoinette with lurid pamphlets purporting to expose the Queen’s vices. Marie Antoinette was innocent of all the accusations connected with the necklace, but guilty of having lived so improvidently as to make them plausible to her ever-growing public of detractors.
She had one true love, and it wasn’t Louis XVI. Zweig, who assembles the evidence that this clandestine affair was consummated, argues in her defense that her marriage had been a contract of state between a girl of fifteen and the undeveloped, teenage Dauphin, for which union she had at length produced two children, thereby fulfilling her duties under the contract. Be that as it may, her lover, the Swedish Count Axel von Fersen, adored her to the end, and beyond, as no one else did.
As her fortunes declined, the escape plan engineered by Count Fersen was thwarted at Varennes. She was confined, first to the palace in Paris and finally to a dark and comfortless cell. She had many chances to escape that last ride in the tumbril (the open cart) to the guillotine. She and Louis XVI bungled every one of them. Time was of the essence and they missed their moments almost unerringly.
Her case grew hopeless but she seldom failed to captivate those who were her captors – most especially the humble poor who saw a woman in misfortune – but sometimes even committed revolutionaries. By what were they captivated?
She was not a religious woman. By stages, she lost her reputation, her youth, her beauty. Even her children were taken from her. What then did she keep? She never failed in her invincible belief that she was the queen. It was a belief she shared with those who hated her the most — and with those who tried in vain to save her. Had she not embodied this queen-ness in every molecule of her being, and held fast to it through all the storms of that time, how could there have been so profound a reversal of a nation’s habits of chivalry and scorn as the French Revolution?
The crowned heads of Europe did little or nothing to save her, mourned her execution pro forma, and busied themselves with their king business: realpolitik and the securing of their own necks.
The bodies of the royals were thrown into a mass grave pit, covered in quicklime and, a few years later, no one knew where the Queen of France was buried.
Only one man poured into his memory all the ardor and devotion to which Marie Antoinette believed she had title by virtue of her queenship. To the end of his days, Count Fersen reproached himself for his failure to risk all and ride with her on the unsuccessful flight to Varennes in 1791. Even had the mob torn him to pieces, he reproached himself again and again in his journal: “Why, ah why, did I not die for her on the twentieth of June?” Strangely, on that very date nineteen years later, Fersen was torn to pieces by a Swedish mob, who hated him for many reasons, among them his unrepentant royalism.
It was only decades after the death of Marie Antoinette, when it was finally safe to remember her, that innumerable false memoires and forged letters began to appear, catering to a reborn taste for the unluckiest Queen of France.
By what were they captivated?
She seems to me to embody the predicament of being a woman: loved and hated, admired and scorned, for the very same qualities, forced to be Queen of France, forced to be the target of the French as they overthrew the monarchy. The bare-breasted woman in Delacroix’s painting, “Liberty at the Barricades,” is not a real person. She is a symbol. Marie Antoinette was not a symbol. She was a real person, who was regarded as a symbol, excoriated or adored depending on how one valued the symbol.
Most of us have a symbolic life and a real life. We are what we represent and what we really are. The problematic of our lives is to keep them in a prudent and credible balance. One could say that Marie Antoinette failed to keep that balance.
But perhaps she did not fail.
Perhaps she was a perfect Marie Antoinette.